Author Mark Twain brilliantly blends several themes together in his short story “The Californian’s Tale.” The mystery presented deals with thematic concepts such as life and death, dreams and reality, and the impact of failure on the lives of Americans drawn to California’s Stanislaus River during the Gold Rush days in the late 1800s and the settling of the American West.
Twain slowly builds suspense in this tale by using at least three different literary methods: foreshadowing or providing hints to help the reader develop expectations of things to come; dialogue or conversational passages focusing on a particular subject matter; and imagery or figurative language that creates visual ideas in the reader’s mind.
The central mystery in “The Californian’s Tale” revolves around the apparent disappearance of a woman. The narrator relates a tale about an incident from thirty-five years earlier when he was panning for gold along the river. He encounters Henry, a miner who is happy to see him and invites him into his cabin. The narrator is enamored with the décor in the cabin and Henry promptly reveals that his wife has created the immaculate atmosphere without any help from him:
“All her work, he said, caressingly; she did it all herself-every bit, and he took the room in with a glance which was full of affectionate worship . . . All her work; she did it all herself -- every bit. Nothing here that hasn't felt the touch of her hand.”
The narrator is anxious to meet Henry’s wife, but is told she was away and would be back in a few days. Thereafter, Henry is visited by other friends, all of whom are equally anxious to see Henry’s wife who never arrives on Saturday as promised. The friends are preparing for a party to celebrate the woman’s birthday and in the process drug Henry until he falls asleep. As the friends begin to leave the cabin, the narrator, still hopeful, asks them to stay and the mystery is finally revealed:
“Then they seemed preparing to leave; but I said: Please don't go, gentlemen. She won't know me; I am a stranger.
They glanced at each other. Then Joe said:
She? Poor thing, she's been dead nineteen years!
That or worse. She went to see her folks half a year after she was married, and on her way back, on a Saturday evening, the Indians captured her within five miles of this place, and she's never been heard of since.”
After losing his spouse, Henry has gone mad.
To advance the plot and create suspense, foreshadowing is a major device used by the author and it occurs regularly throughout the story. For example, upon arriving in Stanislaus, the narrator anticipates a thriving and vibrant community. Instead, he discovers a lonely desolate place, with the exception of Henry’s cabin. The cabin is in stark contrast to the surrounding land that “had once been populous, long years before, but now the people had vanished and the charming paradise was a solitude.” The lively atmosphere of the town is no more, except for Henry’s house. The reader knows something is wrong and the suspense builds.
Twain’s use of dialogue also serves to build the reader’s level of anticipation from the beginning of the tale to the end. For example, Henry responds to the narrator and the reader feels the tension:
“Where is she? When will she be in?
Oh, she's away now. She's gone to see her people. They live forty or fifty miles from here. She's been gone two weeks today.
When do you expect her back?
This is Wednesday. She'll be back Saturday, in the evening-about nine o'clock, likely.
I felt a sharp sense of disappointment.”
Imagery is a literary device that helps to mold the mysterious conflicts and multiple themes. Twain paints a mental picture using description alone to encapsulate the entire story into a vision imprinted in the reader’s mind:
“It was delightful to be in such a place, after long weeks of daily and nightly familiarity with miners' cabins -- with all which this implies of dirt floor, never-made beds, tin plates and cups, bacon and beans and black coffee, and nothing of ornament but war pictures from the Eastern illustrated papers tacked to the log walls. That was all hard, cheerless, materialistic desolation, but here was a nest which had aspects to rest the tired eye and refresh that something in one's nature which, after long fasting, recognizes, when confronted by the belongings of art, howsoever cheap and modest they may be, that it has unconsciously been famishing and now has found nourishment.”
The images described leave no doubt in the mind of the reader that something is awry. The cabin is out of place and the suspense builds as the reader cannot help but believe that it does not reflect reality.
Mark Twain builds suspense in “The Californian’s Tale” in various ways using literary devices. These include, but are not limited to, foreshadowing, dialogue, and imagery.